Rachel Raskin of Las Vegas and her husband checked four bags on a Delta flight from Las Vegas to New York on their way to South Africa in June and were shocked to be charged an extra $120 on top of their airfare. “I usually fly Southwest, so it didn’t even occur to me that we wouldn’t get at least one bag for free,” she said. “We were blown away.”
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Raskin is not the only flier upset over add-on airline fees. A trio of business and consumer travel groups has declared Sept. 23 Mad As Hell Day, promising to turn up the heat in the battle over unbundled airfares and à la carte pricing.
“Shopping for airfare today is like going to the grocery store and seeing a sign posted next to the food that says, ‘All prices are clearly identified on a sheet of paper at the cash register,’ ” said Charles Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, one of the groups behind the effort.
Hoping to rally consumer anger and promote better disclosure of ancillary fees, the Consumer Travel Alliance — along with the Business Travel Coalition and American Society of Travel Agents — earlier this month launched the website MadAsHellAboutHiddenFees.com. So far, the coalition has collected 50,000 signatures on a petition they plan to present to the Department of Transportation (DOT) today.
Today is also the final day in the public comment period on a slew of new air-passenger protections being considered by DOT. As part of the proposed rules, DOT is considering requiring that the airlines enhance how, where and when fees for checked baggage, seat assignments and other ancillary services are disclosed to ticket buyers. A final ruling from the DOT is expected in spring 2011.
“Passengers are not always aware of what fees airlines may charge them,” said DOT spokesman Bill Mosely. “The goal is to make it more transparent to passengers what other fees beside the ticket price they may have to pay.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the backers of Mad as Hell Day, 66 percent of nearly 1,400 respondents said they’d been surprised at the airport by unexpected fees for checking bags, requesting a seat assignment, getting extra legroom and other services. Twenty-six percent said those fees placed a great deal of strain on their budget.
“It's like being told it will cost you $100 to fix your car and when you receive your bill it costs you $175 with hidden fees,” Paul Wilder of Utica, N.Y., recently told msnbc.com.
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“My husband and I have been flying to Florida each November for the past 20-plus years. To protest the objectionable airline fees, we're using Amtrak's Auto Train this year,” said Joan Martin of Piscataway, N.J.
However, opposition to à la carte pricing is anything but unanimous, with some travelers arguing that the onus of knowing what’s included and what isn’t is on travelers themselves. A user-pay model, they say, fosters greater freedom of choice.
“It’s like purchasing any other service or product,” said Mylon Stark, a once-a-month flier from Pierre, S. D. “If you buy a car, you can buy a basic, standard-issue model. But if you want 17-inch chrome wheels and a built-in GPS, you’re going to pay extra. People should expect to pay extra for things that other people aren’t going to use.”
The groups behind Mad As Hell Day are actually OK with that. For them, the issue isn’t the actual fees, but rather, their disclosure — who has access to the data via what distribution channels and at what point in the purchasing process so travelers can get a clear picture of the actual price of their airfare.
However the disclosure issue is ultimately resolved, it’s safe to say that à la carte pricing is here to stay. According to the latest government figures, U.S. airlines took in $2.1 billion in ancillary fees during the second quarter of the year , up 15.8 percent over the same period last year. Baggage fees alone jumped 33 percent to $893 million.
Business arguments aside, it’s also safe to say that that’s likely to rankle a good portion of the flying public, just as it does Raskin of Las Vegas: “My husband and I go to Los Angeles five or six times a year and we don’t even fly anymore,” she said. “We drive because it’s gotten so ridiculous.”
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .